Words by: Theodora Sutcliffe
Life is, broadly speaking, far too short to spend time engaging with internet comments. But when someone responds to an article you've written with (to précis), “I'm his grandson and you've got it all wrong”, the minimally decent thing to do is drop the chap an email and set up a Skype chat.
And so began my odyssey into the Ngiam family, the Ngiam boys and the Singapore Sling. Because, whatever you think of the drink – particularly in the permutations now sold at Raffles – the Singapore Sling's place in cocktail history is assured.
The Singapore Sling is the most famous cocktail from an entire continent - Asia. It is one of very few cocktails that stand as the signature drink of a country. And Ngiam Tong Boon is undoubtedly the first famous Asian bartender.
Further, it's not that often that one stumbles across living, close descendants of pre-Prohibition bartenders, after all.
Ngiam Tong Boon and his wife
Being American, Robert Yen Ngiam puts his family name at the end: in Chinese, the family name comes first, as in Ngiam Tong Boon. I speak to him at an hour that's reasonably social for me in Bali, but suggestive of insomnia on the east coast of the US.
Robert seems to be at that at stage in life where people confront their own mortality and wish they'd learned more about their loved ones before they passed away. He is coming up for 60. His father, Tee Yen Ngiam, passed away in 2012, officially aged 94, although Robert says he lied about his age, and took a couple of years off when he entered the US.
Robert's father, he tells me, followed in Ngiam Tong Boon's footsteps, starting as a sailor then working as a bartender in New York where, at Ming's Chinese Restaurant at 23rd and Park Avenue South, he perfected the family recipe – which Robert is unwilling to share.
More disconcertingly, Robert's father never met his own father. Damn.
Yep, according to Robert, his grandfather, Ngiam Tong Boon, died on Hainan Island, China, ten days before the birth of his second son. And, further, he was allergic to alcohol – it made him turn red and got him drunk quickly, a trait Robert says he and his father inherited.
Some of Robert's timings are obviously confused, he's never been to Singapore and he doesn't speak Chinese. But he tells me his grandfather ran away from Hainan and (shades of Jerry Thomas!) worked on a French ship, before landing at Raffles, working his way up to bar captain, inventing the Singapore Sling, and acquiring a rubber plantation in what is now Malaysia. And then his grandmother was murdered in a “home invasion”. Oh, and he has a cousin in Singapore, whose English name is Arthur, who knows more.
Whatever the veracity of this family lore, it's an exciting story. I'm curious: not least as to how a Chinese migrant bartender in colonial Singapore landed up owning an entire rubber plantation. And, further, I'm going to Singapore, so I email Arthur and request we meet.
In the Long Bar at Raffles, obviously. Because.... where else?
Long Bar, Singapore
Arthur Ngiam has spent his life being busy, working for multinationals, setting up a successful engineering firm, studying at Cambridge and raising three bright and beautiful daughters. Now he's retired, with time on his hands, and – as you might be when your grandfather's drink is on cocktail menus around the world – keen to look into and share his family history.
At lunchtime, he's the only Singaporean guest in the Long Bar, where fans circle lazily as though to express contempt of the assembled tourists, and the ghost of Somerset Maugham spins gently in his grave. The Long Bar his grandfather worked in, downstairs, was a very different place: a focal hub for the great, the good and the white in turn-of-the-century Singapore.
Arthur orders a pale pink, foamy Singapore Sling. I opt for the much more balanced Million Dollar Cocktail, another Ngiam Tong Boon creation. We crunch on unshelled peanuts from a hessian sack.
I make the initial mistake of asking Arthur about Albert Yam, who did an interview with Singapore's Straits Times stating that the Sling served at Raffles was nothing like his ancestor's drink.
“Albert apologised to me for that article,” Arthur says. “He only did it to get a job at Sentosa Resort, and he's not a descendant of Ngiam Tong Boon.”
A few sips into his Sling, Arthur apologises for turning red.
Arthur explains Ngiam Tong Boon's life to me in terms of the three key Chinese values: respect for ancestors, respect for elders and work ethic. “My grandfather was a thrifty and a canny man, but also very generous,” Arthur says. “He ran a lodging house at his home on 19 Middle Road, to house new immigrants from China – with a coffee shop downstairs to provide employment. And when family members came over, he'd get them jobs at the coffee shop or the Long Bar – bottle washer, waiter, whatever.”
Amazingly, Ngiam Tong Boon didn't charge for lodging. “When people arrived from Hainan, often all they had was rice biscuits: they'd spent all their money on the passage. He'd put them up and help them find work,” Arthur says. “When I was a kid there were still people who appreciated what my grandfather had done for their husbands or their family members. I remember meeting them.”
Both grandsons are definite that Ngiam Tong Boon made the most of his position at Raffles. “English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish planters would come to Singapore on R&R from their plantations in Malaya,” Arthur says, using the colonial name for what is now Malaysia. “The British elites recommended he invest in a rubber plantation. He knew the chairmen of all the big companies, and they'd give him special treatment. They found him an honest and a good man, so they gave him advice, and he got a 10-acre rubber plantation.”
Many Hainanese immigrants worked in food and beverage, so as bar captain at the city's best hotel, Ngiam Tong Boon was hugely influential. “Some immigrants would spend all their money on alcohol, or gambling, or women,” Arthur says. “My grandfather would talk with them, and soon he'd have them sending money home.”
Long Bar, Singapore
Even though he followed in his footsteps and worked at Raffles after his death, Arthur's father barely knew his father. What Arthur tells me comes from his grandmother, by way of his mother, to whom he, as the youngest son, was very close.
“My grandmother was very traditional Hainanese,” Arthur says. “It was an arranged marriage. She didn't want to come to Singapore, refused to leave China even when things got hard. She worked, basically, as a subsistence farmer, on the family farm.”
So Ngiam Tong Boon's wife stayed at home, more than 2,000km away, to raise the family. Her husband returned when he could, and often enough to conceive two sons - but in an era before commercial aviation, what's now a three-and-a-half-hour flight took weeks, and letters could take months.
Inconveniently for the cocktail historian, Arthur isn't sure of his father's date of birth, let alone his grandfather's. “There aren't any records from Qing dynasty China,” he explains. According to Arthur, his father died in 1996, aged 88, and celebrated his birthday using the Chinese lunar calendar, so was most likely born in 1908.
And HIS father, Ngiam Tong Boon, died when Arthur's father was six or seven, ten days before his second son was born – most likely in 1915. “My grandfather had come back to Hainan for a visit,” he says. “He didn't know he was sick: he just got sick when he was there.” Even today there is both malaria and dengue on Hainan.
Long Bar, Singapore
Now, given Raffles historically claimed that Ngiam Tong Boon invented the Singapore Sling in 1915, this chronology is problematic. Since 1915 seems to have been the year he died, Ngiam Tong Boon would have to have invented a cocktail, made it famous enough to survive with his name attached, travelled thousands of kilometres to Hainan and died all in the same year.
Mind you, Raffles also claimed that Ngiam Tong Boon kept his secret recipe in a safe, where it was fortuitously discovered.
According to Arthur, Ngiam Tong Boon did indeed have a safe at his home in 19 Middle Road (the original building has now been demolished). And, according to his mother, there was a recipe that he kept inside the safe. But when the family acquired the safe, it was open and empty, the only contents a piece of red paper with Ngiam Tong Boon's name written in Chinese script.
“Nobody knows who he left the key with,” says Arthur. “But when the family received it, it was empty. Nobody knew where the recipe was. There could have been gold in the safe, too. We just don't know.”
Now, it's extremely clear that Ngiam Tong Boon didn't invent the gin sling, a cocktail so old that the term “sling” features in the first definition of the word “cocktail”. Gin slings were well enough known in Singapore to feature in a parody poem in the local Straits Times by 1895: they could be topped with either water or soda, and were as common as the “stengah” (Scotch and soda).
Further, a pink sling seems to first appear in Singapore newspapers in 1903. So if, as it seems, it's that pinkness that came to distinguish the Singapore Gin Sling from the common or garden Gin Sling, Ngiam Tong Boon would have to have invented it long before 1915 – there are recipes for slings with cherry brandy and Bénédictine D.O.M. from 1913.
Which means either that generations of Ngiams, including Ngiams who worked at Raffles with Ngiam Tong Boon, wrongly believed that Ngiam Tong Boon created the Singapore Sling. Or that he created it rather earlier than 1915.
But first, let's backtrack a little. According to Arthur, Ngiam Tong Boon grew up on Hainan island, then primitive even by the standards of imperial China: foreigners were not allowed in the port until 1858. In his village, the main occupation was subsistence farming of rice, working barefoot in the paddy fields.
In his early teens, on the night before Chinese New Year, he went into the family kitchen and tried to swipe something to eat from the roast. The meat fell into the stove, and was covered in ash, destroying the family's New Year meal. “He was afraid his stepmother would kill him,” says Arthur.
So, as a Western child might if they'd inadvertently destroyed the Christmas turkey and would rather not wait for a beating from their stepmother, he ran away.
And in this Cinderella story Ngiam Tong Boon went to sea, the only way for a young boy with zero assets to get off Hainan island, and landed up in Vietnam, probably already part of French colonial Indochina, where he began his career as a waiter and worked his way up to bartender. It's most likely there that he met a French chef, with whom he moved to Singapore.
Where did he work? Who knows? The Hôtel Continental opened in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in 1880; the Hanoi Hotel was established in Hanoi by 1896. But wherever he started, and wherever he finished, by the time he left for Singapore Ngiam Tong Boon spoke French and English as well as Hainanese, and was equipped to tend bar in Asia's best hotels.
In Singapore, Ngiam Tong Boon worked first at the Adelphi, a grand hotel which opened in 1863 and was once the settlement's finest. Then he moved to Raffles, which, once it expanded in 1899, introducing both electric lights and electric fans, became Singapore's best hotel.
According to Raffles, he was already working there at the turn of the century, a date that seems plausible. Early Raffles advertising proclaims its French chefs, and it wouldn't be unusual for hoteliers who had invested in a massive expansion to poach staff from other hotels – possibly both a star French chef and a star Chinese bartender.
And, at some point, during a career that took him from dirt-poor Chinese migrant to bar captain, plantation owner, investor and, most likely, cocktail creator, Ngiam Tong Boon decided he had done well enough to return to Hainan and make an arranged marriage.
Could part of his success have included creating the Singapore Sling? It's possible.
Ngiam Tong Boon
I look again at the undated portrait of Ngiam Tong Boon, neat, dapper and solemn, standing by a teak table, pet dog at his heels. Retouched into agelessness, but for the receding hair, he's the picture of the successful, Westernised, colonial businessman.
Whatever way you look at the picture, it was a while since this balding, dignified chap was a teenage runaway, or working on the farm barefoot in a straw hat and cotton pants, and if you believe the family, he had already been a bartender for a while.
Who was the photo taken for, I wonder? Why the loyal pet dog in the background? Was it for the family, back in Hainan, some time in the early 1900s, to show his parents-in-law that this was a serious man, a good provider, a husband worth keeping? Or a keepsake for his wife and children far away?
“When he was dying, he told my grandmother that he had enough for her to be comfortable for the rest of her life,” says Arthur. “But his brother, who was running the rubber plantation and the minimart for him, was an opium smoker and a womaniser, and got cheated out of the plantation. He ended up working in Raffles.”
Arthur never met his grandmother, though the photo he has shows a strikingly beautiful young woman. She stayed on Hainan, working on her farm, until the borders closed and Red China became a no-go zone. At some point, he thinks during the 1950s, local Communists decided her farm made her an enemy of the people, a landlord and exploiter, and murdered the old lady.
Arthur, with phenomenal hospitality, invites me to join 30-odd Ngiam family members, including a nephew who worked at Raffles, for dinner at his home the next night.
Cocktail history, like food history, is never simple. Drinks don't spring, Athena-style, from the head of a bartender, who instantly records the precise proportions of the recipe for posterity and never changes it.
Hell, try pinning even a living bar icon down on when they created a drink and exactly what they put in it, and they'll be vague. Memory is fickle, and drinks evolve.
When cocktails are used as marketing tools, as Raffles has used the Singapore Sling, the picture becomes even more complex. Further, during World War II, Raffles was used as accommodation for senior Japanese officers, then afterwards as a transit camp, activities not conducive to preservation of archives.
Still... when Roberto Pregarz, an Italian former sailor and marketing genius, took over the operation of Raffles in 1967, not long after Singapore became independent, one of his very first moves was to promote the Singapore Sling. After he put up a sign in the bar proclaiming it the home of the Singapore Sling, volumes soared.
Arthur thinks that Pregarz turned to the Ngiam family, including his father, and backtracked through history to try and find a date for the Singapore Sling story. And, I believe, since 1915, by Ngiam family chronology, was the latest date that Ngiam Tong Boon could have invented the Sling, Pregarz picked that.
In the absence of the internet, or cocktail historians, who was going to care?
In Arthur's grassy front garden, in a green and prosperous suburb where substantial houses line sleepy avenues and the elderly walk dogs in the park, a helper is kneading dough for prata, the glorious Malay-Indian bread Malaysians call roti canai; curries dominate one table; Chinese food a second. It's Singapore in a nutshell: part Chinese, part Indian, just the tiniest hint of Malay.
I'm surrounded by Ngiams, the youngest just eight months old and over from Oxford where her father teaches maths at the university, the oldest pushing 90 and happiest speaking Hainanese.
And I can't help having a slight sentimental flashback, to Ngiam Tong Boon, squirrelling away wealth for his wife, the unborn son he never met and the young son he rarely saw, and doing his duty for the ancestors and these descendants.
Much of Singapore was fishing villages when he arrived, with some grand colonial buildings, neat streets of shophouses, markets and a port: an island that's home to over 4,000,000 people now held barely 200,000. And here they are, his family, flourishing, his direct descendants living in England, Chile and America, and Singapore a financial boomtown, dense with skyscrapers.
Still... I'm here to talk to Arthur's nephew, Jim, who is, since Arthur is twenty years younger than his father, roughly Arthur's age. Jim worked at Raffles from 1978 to 1981, as he recalls. He'd started work as a sailor, but then he got married, so needed a job in Singapore, and, as a Ngiam, the obvious place to go was the Long Bar.
Jim has brought me a present, a cocktail mat from Raffles which the family believe dates from soon after Roberto Pregarz took over as GM. It reads:
SINGAPORE GIN SLING
was created by
Barman Ngiam Tong Boon in 1915
at the LONG BAR
and is made with BEEFEATER GIN.
CHERRYSTOCK, TRIPLE SEC.
D.O.M. ORANGE, LIME,
Even that recipe changed over Jim's tenure, a lot. “Arthur's father said it was nonsense,” he tells me. “It was always Gordon's, not Beefeater, but we think Pregarz was a friend of the Beefeater man.”
This intrigues me, since Arthur's father started working at Raffles in the 1920s, along with men who had worked with his father. “What about the lime and orange?” I ask.
“Oh, that changed. Pineapple grows here, but oranges were imported from California, so they added more pineapple to cut down on expense.”
“And what's Cherrystock?” I ask.
“Heering,” Jim says definitively. Presumably the recipe means Stock Cherry Brandy, which may well have been another Pregarz innovation.
“What about the proportions?” I ask.
Jim indicates quantities with his fingers, which was how recipes were taught in his day. “A 'peck' of gin – is that the word?” he says, indicating an inch or so's slug.
“And the cherry?”
“Less,” he says, indicating half that amount.
I'm not really hoping to get to the bottom of the Singapore Sling recipe at this distance in time, but I am intrigued by a laminated article from a 1978 Australian Women's Weekly that Jim has also brought to the family gathering.
This records the proportions of the Singapore Gin Sling as: two parts gin, one part cherry brandy, drops of Cointreau and Bénédictine, and one part orange, pineapple and lime juice.
“So it was a strong drink?” I ask.
A cousin of Arthur's I've been chatting to, who asks me not to use her name, chimes in. “Yes, it really was! I asked my father to show me how to make it, but he wouldn't – he didn't want us working in bars. But I tried it, and when I drank a couple of sips I'd feel like I wanted to go to sleep.”
All agree that premixes and the new, weak recipe came in during the 1980s, with new management. “They used the old recipe until all the old Ngiam uncles passed away,” she says. “All the Ngiam relatives, the Ngiam boys, made it the old way.”
How many Ngiam boys were there, I ask, envisaging wave after wave of young men embarking on that long journey from Hainan, hearts set on the bright lights of Singapore. “Maybe 20 or 30?” she says. “Most of them were first-generation immigrants. All our uncles were not very educated. They only spoke broken English.”
And was it a strong drink? I ask her to ask her 86-year-old mother. A flood of Hainanese. Yes, it was strong.
This doesn't sound far from Albert Yam's complaint that the Singapore Sling, as served today, is weak, unbalanced and fruity, and a far cry from Ngiam Tong Boon's recipe as taught by the Ngiam boys. But Albert doesn't speak much English, and, sadly, I don't have time to track him down.
Nor does the recipe sound far, in style, from the drink Chew Ah Mit, a bartender at the Selangor Club, recalled from the start of his career in 1908: gin, cherry brandy, liqueur, D.O.M. and lemon.
Is it possible that the drink Ngiam Tong Boon created was a citrussy pink gin affair? Or, even, that he created two versions? The first a souped-up Gin Sling, with cherry brandy, D.O.M. and triple sec, some time around 1903? And a second, replacing the soda with citrus juices and a hint of pineapple, some time later?
Cocktailians debate whether the Singapore Sling originated directly from the Gin Sling, or as a mutation via the Straits Sling. As I listen, I can't help noticing that, amid the flood of Chinese dialect, the words “Gin Sling” stand out.
“What did they call the drink?” I ask. “Singapore Sling, or Gin Sling?”
“Gin Sling,” she says. “It's two short words, which is easier for Chinese. Although people outside Singapore, I think they'd order the Singapore Sling.”
The words “Straits Sling”, with their cluster of difficult consonants – an 'S', a 'T', and, oh my gosh, that most challenging of sounds, the English 'R' – would have been nigh-on impossible for a Chinese speaker to manage. Though, of course, it wouldn't have stopped guests calling it that.
Arthur clarifies. “The original was the Gin Sling, but that became the Singapore Sling.”
“In the old days, Raffles was right on the beach,” his cousin says. “So sailors would come by, and they'd come on shore, and drink Gin Slings, and then they'd go somewhere else and order them, and that's how the name Singapore Sling spread.”
The Ngiams have been beyond hospitable, but I'm basically gatecrashing a family party to introduce Arthur's newest grandchild, and I'd rather not intrude further.
One thing is really bugging me, though. It's the idea that Ngiam Tong Boon didn't drink alcohol. It seems quite clear from the mini-empire he built up from nothing – his shares, his coffee shop, his rubber plantation – that he wouldn't have wasted cash on buying alcohol, but surely he must have drunk it?
Like many Singaporean Chinese, his descendants are very moderate drinkers, sipping water, juice and sweet teh tarik (pulled tea), with only the occasional Tiger beer – sadly, there are no ingredients in the house to mix up a Singapore Sling.
I ask the family. “I never heard that,” says Arthur's cousin.
“He must have drunk alcohol,” says Arthur. “Otherwise, how could he have invented the drink?”
“One thing I did hear, though,” the cousin says. “That he invented the drink in Vietnam.”
“I've never heard that,” says Arthur.
And with that, I head into town, leaving them planning more research in family history.
Later, I call Arthur to run through a draft of this article: there are an awful lot of Ngiams, and a lot of dates, and oral family histories aren't the most concrete of tales.
“Is there anything you've heard about your grandfather that you haven't told me?” I ask.
“Yes,” says Arthur. “My mother told me a very interesting story that she learned from my grandmother. My grandfather died in China in 1915, while my grand-uncle was in Malaysia looking after the plantation. And he told my grandmother that one of his rubber-tappers who was a labourer on the plantation called him to come and see him very early in the morning.”
According to Arthur, the rubber-tapper then dumped two pails of valuable latex on the ground, and exclaimed in Hainanese, a language he, as a Hokkien-speaker, did not know, “I am Ngiam Tong Boon. I died seven days ago.”
The grand-uncle, understandably disturbed by this, wrote a letter to Hainan, asking how his brother was. A few months later he received the reply that Ngiam Tong Boon had died.
“Asians, be we Indian or Chinese, we know that there is an energy – it's how fortune tellers make money – and there's some way that the person's energy survives,” says Arthur. “My mother told me that my grandfather was a very strong, determined man, that his energy was strong.”
And, clearly, whatever happened after he died, while he lived Ngiam Tong Boon's energy was very strong indeed.